Fortesa Hajdini | 28 April 2023
Like other children of immigrants, I, too, grew up seeing my parents alternate between Swedish news channels and those of the homeland. The most passionate comments came while watching the news from back home: “ugh, another election,” ”the EU-dialogue this, the EU-dialogue that,” "visa liberalization” and updates regarding which countries had recognized the country’s independence and, sometimes, which countries had withdrawn their earlier recognition.
For those interested in the Western Balkans, the terms “EU-dialogue”, “visa liberalisation” and the mentioning of independence might give away the fact that the country I am referring to is Kosovo. Growing up, there are three particular political events I remember connected to Kosovo: my eight-year-old cousin crying when Kosovo’s former President Ibrahim Rugova died in 2006, the declaration of independence in 2008, and lastly, the extraordinary elections of 2017.
The third memory is the one that inspired this post and my master’s thesis.
The parliamentary elections of 2017 created a puzzle for me. I was allowed to vote in a country in which I do not reside, nor am I a citizen of. What I remember from that year were the frequent calls to the diaspora to use their right to vote in Kosovo, both from the Central Elections Commission (CEC) and from political parties. The CEC was promoting voting and provided guides on how to vote by regular mail, and through advertisements on national television. However, I recall social media being the place where these calls to the diaspora were most frequent, and the infographics more detailed on the process of postal voting (as the only alternative was to physically travel to Kosovo)—explaining the application from the initial step, to the final one.
Being curious, I wanted to see if I, born and raised in Sweden, holding only Swedish citizenship, could vote. I filled in the application form, writing in my parents’ names and birth places. Then I proceeded to scan our Swedish passports, and I finally e-mailed them to the CEC. This was my application to be allowed to vote. Later on, a list of approved voters was posted by the CEC (GDPR, who?), and after Command+F-ing my way through the list, I saw that I was one of them.
I am neither a resident nor a citizen of Kosovo. For that matter, I was not born there either. The logic of voting eligibility in Kosovo has been that if you have the right to be a citizen, you have the right to vote. Evidently, it is neither necessary to be a citizen nor to be a resident. To be fair, my initial response at the time was not one of huge surprise. Considering the fact that the term diaspora and the concept of diaspora are very common in Kosovo and amongst the diaspora, it somehow made sense, until I reflected a little bit deeper on the phenomenon. To be mentioned is also the fact that this practice, based on the election law, stands in contrast to the constitution, which states that every citizen of age is to vote and can be elected.
Migration and refuge are neither uncommon nor new phenomena, and historically, they have created transnational networks such as diasporas, commonly referred to as “a group of people residing outside of their homeland [which is] an important extension of the homeland”. Diasporas engage and interact with the homeland in several ways. A member of the Kosovar diaspora, is, according to the Republic of Kosovo’s Law No. 04/L-095 on Diaspora and Migration, defined as “any person dwelling or emplaced outside [the] Republic of Kosovo and who was born or has family origins in the Republic of Kosovo.” This legal definition of the diaspora is highly broad, inclusive, and passive, indicating that a diaspora is something pre-given or a natural category to which you belong by simply being.
Scholars, however, oppose this view by emphasizing that a diaspora is constructed by active means of mobilization, oriented towards the homeland. To create a distinctive group identity, boundaries are also maintained. A diaspora, rather than being a natural, passive category, is understood to be an active category of practice. Almost every family in Kosovo has a family member or a relative that lives in the diaspora. The Kosovar diaspora has been formed through four phases of emigration, starting from the middle of the last century, and migration is still ongoing, further stressing its importance to the homeland.
The opportunity for second generation members of the diaspora to vote without a demand for residency or citizenship—with the sole criterion of having one parent born in the country—leads to the question of what citizenship is. This practice challenges the traditional notion of citizenship being a mutual relationship between citizens and the state, where obligations and rights are implied. According to this traditional idea, I have the political rights that come with citizenship, namely voting, but without any obligations towards the state. How does this make sense?
External voting, as a practice, is not in any way uncommon. In fact, at least 115 countries allow non-resident voting, while 45 countries prevent this. The current academic discussion on external voting touches upon the new dimensions of citizenship, moving from the nation-state to a more transnational understanding of citizenship and a de-territorialization of the nation-state. Excluding citizenship from the practice of voting from abroad is what makes the case of Kosovo interesting, but also difficult to understand.
The practice of external voting by non-citizens is very uncommon and seems, I say with modesty, to apply to only four countries in the world: East Timor, Eritrea, Iraq and Kosovo. When speaking of citizenship and political rights, non-citizen residents’ lack of political rights is often a theme of academic discussion. Nonetheless, the idea of non-resident non-citizen political rights is not entirely new; Robert Dahl’s idea that everyone affected by a government’s decisions should have rights of participation in said government becomes relevant. When speaking of diasporas, the idea of voting without citizenship becomes a double-edged sword. More than socially and culturally, the diaspora affects Kosovo in several ways: economic remittances, real estate or land purchases, entrepreneurial investments. But is this enough to be allowed to impact the politics of the country where diaspora external voting could dramatically change the trajectory of an election?
In the last parliamentary elections of 2021, the general voter turnout was 903,379 (48,8%). The diaspora broke records with 56,375 valid ballots, and out of these 44,252 diaspora votes went to the Self-Determination Movement, which received a total of 50.3% of votes and became the newly elected government. The diaspora evidently had a significant impact on the creation of the new government, in which, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora is led by a member of the diaspora.
Albeit the practice of non-resident non-citizen voting practice was implemented by the international missions to enable representation for the refugees and displaced persons of the war in 1998-1999, Kosovo today is not in an immediate post-war situation or a situation of direct interventionism—but the practice of external voting by non-citizens has nonetheless stuck. Migration, whether regular or forced, has a long history in Kosovo and is still prevalent. People will continue to migrate, new generations of diaspora will emerge (or disappear) and questions regarding the transformation of the nation-state, citizenship, and the implications of non-resident non-citizen voting will still continue to be of interest.
Aside of the why’s and how’s of this theoretically challenging practice, it could be of interest to reflect upon if we can learn something from Kosovo’s, current, all-inclusive approach. Considering both the evolution of the diaspora and the discrepancy between the law and the constitution, questions arises regarding if this practice has a future in Kosovo itself.
Fortesa Hajdini is a Master’s student in Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg. She was a research intern at the research project on second-generation activism and homeland states, funded by the Swedish Research Council.